Conspicuous consumption

Two scathing critiques of excessive consumerism. Plus: Need a headline? Try "Eyes Wide Shut"! It worked for Kubrick.

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was seven years ago, and I'll never forget it. I attended my first and next-to-last Amway meeting. As the half dozen or so of us in attendance sipped coffee and nibbled on cheap hors d'oeuvres, we were asked to answer one question: What would you do with unlimited wealth? I replied that I'd spend the rest of my life acquiring Ph.D.s, jaunting off to Europe and feeding the poor.

I was swiftly and publicly berated for my lack of imagination. Who needs education when there are yachts to buy? How about a nice diamond necklace? An island? My God! Poverty would be wiped out if we all sold Amway! Heal the world through cleaning products! It was all so laughable.

Yet here were are, seven years later, and the dream of Amway hucksters -- buckets of easy money -- has infected America like never before. Employees are trading in hours of free time for the promise of a stock option bonanza. Advertisements berate clueless proles who haven't jumped on the e-trade bandwagon. And who doesn't know somebody with more paper wealth than the GNP of some unfortunate country? Even those who aren't making it big are doing nicely for themselves in this moment of unprecedented spending power.

So where are the critical voices? The media is bursting with nothing but bigger, better product reviews and gushing profiles of 28-year-old mega-millionaires. "Lifestyle" is the new editorial mantra. And those few articles that buck this journalistic trend appear in periodicals that address their readership as "comrades." This week, however, two articles take hard looks at the new Gilded Age.

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S.F. Weekly, June 28-Aug. 3

"Revenge of the Leisure Class" By Jack Boulware

In this pithy and well-timed piece, Jack Boulware profiles Thorstein Veblen, the economist and rabble-rouser who penned the lovely phrase "conspicuous consumption" a century ago. An outspoken critic of the leisure class and all its trappings, Veblen argued that self-esteem had become directly linked to the possession of material goods. Interest in Veblen, named earlier this year by -- of all places -- the Wall Street Journal as one of the 15 "Best and Brightest Economic Thinkers Who Made a Difference," is on the rise as new wealth is generated at mind-boggling speed and the ideas laid out in his major work, "The Theory of the Leisure Class," become relevant once more.

Boulware makes a strong case that Silicon Valley is infected with the same conspicuous consumption Veblen despised and neatly ties together Veblen's Gilded Age worries with today's economic realities and social behaviors.

But Boulware's fine piece can't overcome my secret dread that Veblen's ideas flourish most luxuriantly at times when they are sure to be dismissed. The bigger the leisure class, after all, the more time to read "The Theory of the Leisure Class." In evil dreams, I imagine Veblen's books adorning Pottery Barn coffee tables, next to gleaming, new copies of The Communist Manifesto and a must-have Allagash River Canoe replica.

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Seattle Weekly, July 29-Aug. 4

"Rising incomes, rising tastes" by Bruce Barcott

Speaking of Pottery Barn ... From the land of Microsoft millionaires, Bruce Barcott discusses a trend he calls Pottery Barn Nation --
"the marketing downward of 'good taste.'" The newly flush middle class is flocking to products that befit an upper-class lifestyle -- Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, W Hotels, Michael Graves' Target line of housewares -- yet skirt the label of conspicuous consumption. Hence, Restoration Hardware, sports utility vehicles, Pottery Barn. Barcott's observations about Abercrombie & Fitch-clad shoppers and clueless sales clerks are amusing, balanced nicely against penetrating insights on the subtle marketing and cultural forces that convince post-IPO couples that they need a $1,395 black leather club chair.

Headline writing is an art. It requires the imagination of a sculptor and the brevity and conciseness of a poet. As with all arts, there are few masters and many journeymen -- and one of the favorite ploys of the less-than-inspired is the old buzz-phrase-ripoff. There's this big movie that everybody's talking about -- and you have an article that you want everybody to be talking about. What to do? Why, jes' slap the movie headline onto the article! As in the following headlines:

"An Out-Of-Scale Response: Eyes Wide Open" by Long Island Voice Staff

A fascinating, squirm-inducing photo essay on expensive and painful beauty treatments -- from liposuction to body piercing to corrective laser surgery. Yet no attempt is made to discuss Nicole Kidman's gorgeous buttocks! There is no room in responsible journalism for this kind of bait-and-switch tactic.

"Eyes Wide Shut" by Guy Trebay (Village Voice)

Subtitled "Rating Death's Value in the Age of Celebrity Hype," this provocative piece compares the media outpouring over the Kennedy deaths with the lack of coverage of a woman brutally murdered in Central Park. I share the sentiment, though it's difficult to take seriously a critique of "celebrity hype" when the headline is the title of a Kidman/Cruise movie.

"Doors Wide Shut" by Dave McCoy (Willamette Week)

The name of the movies reviewed in this article are "The Haunting" and "The Blair Witch Project." Neither was directed by Stanley Kubrick.

"Eyes wide shut" (Boston Phoenix)

Editorial: "The Treasury scandal shows why the state must do a far better job of watching those who keep track of the money." Woo-hoo! Where's the lame orgy scene?

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Hartford Advocate, July 29-Aug. 4

"Drinking: The Lure and Legacy of Alcohol" by Jarrett Murphy

Neither an ode nor a condemnation, Jarrett Murphy's essay on the culture of drinking is a complex and comprehensive study of the role of alcohol in our culture and our lives. Afraid of continuing a family legacy of alcoholism, Murphy spent years avoiding his first drink. His outsider's perspective gives depth to his observations about this ubiquitous and widely accepted drug. In his quest to understand what drives us to include beer, wine, hard liquor in our daily lives, Murphy talks to academics, a member of the Prohibition Party in Utah, a liquor store clerk; he attends an AA meeting, quotes literature, talks to medical experts. Part essay, part history, Murphy presents a well-rounded picture of what alcohol is, means and does for us as a society.

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Kansas City Pitch Weekly, July 22-28

"Predicting the Future" by Michelle Rubin

They are the reason most people turn on the local news. They have their own cable channel. We rely on them daily, yet poke fun at them, their clothes, their helmet-like hair. They are weathermen.

Who are the weathermen? Are they as unsexy as they appear on television? Are they really wrong 50 percent of the time? What is a Doppler radar and why do we need it? How do ratings play into TV weather forecasts? In this fascinating -- I swear! -- piece on Kansas City's weathermen, Michelle Rubin answers all these questions.

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Los Angeles New Times, July 29-Aug. 3 and L.A. Weekly, July 30-Aug. 5

"Soul Snatcher" by Denise Hamilton and "Murder in a Santa Monica Squat" by Jorge Casuso

Earlier this month, Glen Mason was sentenced to life in prison for the strangulation murder of 14-year-old Shevawn Geoghegan. The Los Angeles New Times put the story of Geoghegan's death on its cover and the L.A. Weekly ran a piece on it as well. It's a fascinating story: A rebellious teenager with insecurities and drug problems falls under the spell of an older, manipulative, Satan-worshipping squatter. The New Times piece is longer and far more sentimental in tone. Both journalists justify their in-depth coverage of the murder with the claim that it has brought attention to the plight of runaway teens in Santa Monica. Yet in the hometown of James Ellroy, it's sometimes difficult to tell where social concern ends and voyeuristic fascination with murdered girls and the bizarre, violent practices of their murderers begins.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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